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Love in the Present Tenseby Catherine Ryan Hyde
PEARL, age 13: dying lessons
One night when I was seven I watched a man die. He was on the street under my bedroom window. I was on my knees looking out. The sound, it had woke me. The window was open for air, which there was not much of, and what there was did not move. The curtain did not blow aside, and it was dark in my room, and I knew they could not see me.
The man who was going to die was on his knees. Like myself. Only with his arms out. Not up, like a stickup. Straight out, like Christ on his cross, only with his knees bent. I call him a man because I was only seven at the time. To me he looked big. Now I can remember his face, both before and after, and I know he was maybe sixteen. But I mistook him for a man.
The guys doing the killing, there were three, standing up. Laughing, which is what woke me I think. One of them had a sawed-off shotgun right in the man's face. Sort of a man. I guess if you are about to die like that, you're more than a boy.
Now the sort-of-man, he started to cry. Big crocodile tears. Or what they call that, anyway. Why they call them crocodile tears I don't know. I have never seen a crocodile cry. I have never seen a crocodile. But I watched a man die. So I know some things. Only maybe they are not the best things to know.
Then the almost-dead man, he started up begging. Please, he said. Please, think of my mama. Think of the kids I ain't even get to have yet. Please don't do this, I'll do anything, what do you want me to do? His shoulders shook, like a little earthquake right under the street that nobody could feel but him. His own little personal seven point one, just under his knees.
Please, he said, and the one with the sawed-off shotgun shot him in the face. Then the three, they walked off laughing. Turned the corner, laughing. I had to keep watching, because I was afraid to not watch. I was afraid to go back to bed. Because the dead sort-of-man, he would still be there. He had to be where I could see. I remember real good what he looked like after, but it's something I do not plan to say a whole lot about. Because some things, they are plain ugly. This thing, I figure it's bad enough I know.
After a while the cops came, and I got tired, and they were there to look and know where he was, so I went back to bed.
There is no mercy. Give up on that. Don't ask.
I decided when my number came up someday, I would not beg. I would take my dignity with me. They say you can't take it with you, but mostly about money and cars and such. Dignity, I think you can. And I think you will miss it sorely if you leave it behind. Anyway, we all believe what we want and that's what I believe.
Speaking of dignity, it is dignity when you own what you did. Not pretend. So, I shot that man. Just like they think I did. I will say that now. I shot that man between the eyes, in Rosalita's kitchen, where he stood with no pants on. Killed him with his own gun. It was my birthday that day. I was thirteen.
I knew he was a cop, but what difference is that supposed to make? Even if I could have known somehow I would die for it later. It's always better to die later. A time like that, you have to make a fast choice, and it's never die/not die. It's always die now/die later. Rosalita taught me that. She said, "Girl, comes clear somebody's number 'bout to be up, try and see it ain't you. Let him die now, you die some other time. When your number finally come up, you'll be ready. You'll've had lotsa practice." That made sense to me. But I don't think that's why I shot him.
I did not laugh or have fun.
I guess I felt some bad for it later, but at the time I don't know what I felt. Not the half of what I should've, that I can say for a fact. I was not a cold person. Just alive, like everybody else, and trying to stay that way awhile longer.
I guess I felt bad later because I could've let go of the gun. Not pulled on it. I think if I'd just let him take it back he might not've hurt me or anything. But then you don't know for a fact and you just do something and then it's the wrong something. I worry sometimes, did I shoot him because he didn't love me and never would? But I really think it wasn't on purpose. Only, sometimes I see people fool themselves, so I ask myself all the same. But I don't think I meant for it to happen. Besides, if I was to kill everybody who didn't love me and never would, wouldn't be nobody left on the planet but maybe Rosalita and Leonard, my little boy. Who, of course, was not even borned at the time.
This is how it was.
On account of it was my birthday, I had been almost all day looking for Mama. What one of these things has to do with the other I can't say that I know. What I thought she would do about it being my birthday, well, she wouldn't do nothing. That much is real clear now. But it made me look for her all the same.
To make things worse, Rosalita had got arrested, only this time she did not come back. And I had to wonder why. Usually it wouldn't take her no more than two, three hours to make it home. Cop would pick her up, take her on a ride supposed to be to the station. Only they'd go someplace else, she doing for him for free what he was supposed to be taking her in for. Then he'd drop her back on the corner.
This time she did not come home all day. Maybe some cop really put her in jail. Maybe he didn't want nothing from her, or had kids and a wife he wanted to stay true to for real. Or a bag of other maybes I could not understand. What had happened to things? I didn't know.
I went by to where Little Julius was sitting out on his stoop and I asked him did he see my mama.
"Maybe I seen her," he said. "Maybe I ain't. Why'nt you come over a little closer here and we talk about it?"
I didn't get no closer to Little Julius. He was a big fat man with his hair shaved all off and little designs shaved in, and when he smiled, his front teeth were all gold. You would think it would look nice--all that gold. But no. It was ugly in a way I could never explain. He liked the color of my skin because of me being part black and part Korean. He said I am fine. Not that day, but he had said it. In the past. And even that day, even with him not saying it, you could feel that hanging around.
I said, "Maybe did you sell her something?"
Little Julius said, "Ain't got nothin' to sell. Ain't got no product. If you would listen to reason maybe I would have. You and me, we could do okay. Little girl like you, just don't have no idea what you got. You and your mama, live in a real house. You'd be doin' okay."
I knew we were talking two very different kinds of things and so did he. I cared and Little Julius, he did not.
"Who she buy from when she don't buy from you?"
Little Julius frowned. Frown like that means maybe time to back up. Maybe time to get the hell somewhere else.
I say no to guys all the time. Every day. Most don't like it any too much. Sometime I say yes. The good ones, they're not sure what they feel. Feel too many things at once. They are the only kind I say yes to. The too-sure kind, I say no. They got no conscience to make them feel some other things. Watch out for that.
I waited under the freeway overpass for some guy they called Slacker. Listening to the cars go over my head--thump-thump, thump-thump--I was wondering what makes that thump sound. If there are bumps in the road or something. But I never been on that road, or most others. Me and Mama didn't have a car. I was wondering should I go back in and ask for this Slacker guy again. But I was in that bar once already, and the bartender man, he threw me out. Said I would lose him his license. Said he would send this Slacker out to see me.
Thump-thump. How long it would take him to come out and see me I didn't know.
I was thinking maybe I would just go on back to Rosalita's. Give this up for the day. But it's a long walk back there. If I had bus fare maybe I would've already been gone. The day was already almost over.
Then this man came walking by. Looked too good to be down there. You know, with a suit and all. A white man with a shiny gold wedding ring. I was sitting on the sidewalk and he looked down at me and I looked up at him, and I knew he had the taste. I could see it in his eyes. And I knew he would give me some money if I asked, because he did not know it. At least, he did not know it out loud. So he would think he was looking at me for some much nicer reasons. Like I am this nice young person he wants to help out, and like there is no shame in a thing like that. I looked up into his eyes like I had fallen into something I couldn't quite find my way out of. Which in some ways was the truth.
"You okay?" he said.
"Can't get home," I said. "No bus fare."
He took out his wallet and pulled out three one-dollar bills. I could tell he did not ever ride the bus and was trying to think what that might cost. I didn't tell him, because then he would give me the most he thought it might be. He reached it down to me and I wondered what he would do if my hand touched his when I took it. I knew he was a man who would feel lots of things at once. I could say yes to a man like that. Maybe get a steak dinner for my birthday. But then he let go real quick and walked on. I watched his back walking away. That is a man who knows trouble when he scrapes by it. That's what I told myself while I watched him walk away.
Then next thing I knew this white dude with his hair slicked back came out of the bar and said maybe he is Slacker and maybe not. All depends on who is asking. I said I am asking and then he figured maybe yeah, that's who he is.
I asked him did he see my mama. And I told him about the scar she wore on her face, so that way he would know which mama she is.
He said yeah, maybe he might've made a sale to a person such as that, and maybe by now she would've gone on home to use up what she got. Like that answered everything, he said that to me, and stared me down. And I said shoot, Mr. Slacker, we don't live noplace. Like what was he thinking? Used to we had a real apartment, but that's been a long time now.
He just shook his head and went back inside the bar.
I stood a minute more under that overpass. Thump-thump. Thump-thump.
Then I walked to the bus stop, thinking it was good I had three dollars.
Before I could even get there this boy slapped me up against the brick of a place. No one around to see. Boy no older than me. Younger maybe. But bigger. Held me there with his dirty self that smelled bad.
"What you got for me?" he said. "Got any money?"
I thought for a minute about that three dollars, and would I fight for it. I can take an ass whipping. I done so many times. But it was my birthday and also I could not see getting my ass beat for three dollars. That white man with the shiny gold ring, where was he now when I needed him?
"I got three dollars," I said.
"Shit, that ain't no money," he said.
So I said, "Fine. Don't take it then."
But he did take it. Stuck his hand deep down in the pocket of my shorts and took it away and then pressed his dirty self up even closer and said he can take what he wants. I was just about to spit on his face.
But then he said, "Don't want nothing from you, though."
And he let me go. I spit on him just the same, and he kicked me in the leg and ran away.
I sat on the bus bench anyway, because sometimes there is this one driver on this route who will let me ride even if I don't pay. He puts a finger to his lips and real quiet says, I got to go there anyway, don't I now? With you or without you. He is nice. But a bus came by and it was not him driving. It was this lady. She stopped and put the door open with that noise sounds like an old man complaining while he sits down. She looked at me and I looked back.
"Getting on?" she said. "Don't have all day."
"No money," I said. And she closed that door and rolled away.
It was starting to get dark. I'd been sitting on that bench a real long time.
I knew there was one more place to look for Mama, but it was a long walk and not someplace I really so much wanted to go. I was thinking maybe I did not need to find her quite that bad.
Then the cop car stopped for me.
From the Hardcover edition.
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